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The Bush Decision Point

The father faced down the Israel lobby and paid a price; the son accommodated it. What's the lesson for Jeb?
george w bush george hw bush
President George W. Bush sits on the edge of his desk Wednesday May 2, 2001, and talks with his father, former President George H.W. Bush who dropped by the Oval Office. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Surely a few foreign policy realists have flipped through George W. Bush’s portrait of his father for hint at what a third Bush presidency would be like. It’s a move born largely of desperation: Hillary for the moment seems unstoppable, and as Glenn Greenwald and others have documented, all signs are that she would usher in a new neocon presidency, albeit under the guise of “historicfirstwoman, etc.” Rand Paul might beat her, but the odds don’t favor him having the opportunity. Pro-Hillary quotes from the likes of Max Boot and Robert Kagan speak volumes, as does Hillary’s record as secretary of state (backing the war on Libya, the elevation of Cheney aide Victoria Nuland to a critical position, violent threats against Iran, likening Vladmir Putin to “Hitler”, etc.) Those of us whose whose early public impressions of Hillary, for better and worse, were colored by images of bell-bottoms and the 1972 Democratic Convention had best get over it.

I’ve flipped through Bush 43’s new book, hopeful that his portrait of George H.W. Bush could yield a window of sorts into the current family mindset. The issue has a kind of dialectical shape. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican realist and extraordinarily successful in foreign policy; his son George W’s name is indelibly linked with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz, trillions of dollars expended and thousands of lives pointlessly destroyed. Where lies Jeb on this family continuum? Might this book by his candidacy’s most prominent public supporter hold some clues?

To the critical period of 1991-1992, when President Bush went from stunningly favorable approval ratings after the Iraq war (70 percent in September 1991, six months after its end) to losing the presidency, Bush the son devotes a coy chapter with one very revealing gap. He writes that in the “early fall of 1991” he told his father that he was worried about the re-election effort. He urged a shakeup of the White House staff. He then goes on to portray the difficult political landscape Bush 41 faced that fall: resentment from the GOP base over the breaking of the “no new taxes pledge”; the economy in recession; a somewhat dysfunctional White House political operation; the “unexpected” defeat of Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania’s special Senate election. And then, as the election year commenced, Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge, the relative success of which encouraged Ross Perot to undertake his own independent candidacy.

Buchanan never posed an electoral threat, though it is plausible that his run prevented Bush from “consolidating the base” before the convention. Perot was another matter; he ended up taking 19 percent of the vote in November—probably 2/3 of them Republican voters. Bush the author quotes his Dad: “I think he cost me the election.”

But Bush’s account skips over one major additional controversy. In the spring of 1991, the administration got into a major conflict with Israel and its American lobby over loan guarantees and expanding West Bank settlements. Israel asked for, and fully expected, the United States to guarantee $10 billion in loans to help Israel with absorbing new immigrants from the Soviet Union. Under the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, Israel had commenced building West Bank settlements at breakneck speed: Shamir was a fierce partisan of “Greater Israel” and hoped, he later acknowledged, not only to claim the occupied territories for Israel but to foreclose permanently the emergence of any self-governing Palestinian entity. President Bush and his secretary of state James Baker were optimistic about an eventual final peace agreement between Israel and all Arabs, including the Palestinians, and certainly did not want the United States to be seen as subsidizing Israel’s West Bank annexation project.

In May 1991, both Bush and Baker publicly called the settlements an obstacle to peace. In response, under AIPAC’s prodding, Congress began pushing Bush to release the loan guarantees on Israel’s terms, meaning Israel could use the money to build wherever it wished. On September 6th, Bush asked Congress for a 120-day delay before considering the Israeli loan request. AIPAC pushed back, flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists. On September 12th, Bush called a press conference and denounced both Israeli West Bank settlements and the Israel lobby. He told reporters he was “up against some powerful political forces” designed to thwart him., adding that “a thousand lobbyists” were working the Hill, while he was “one lonely guy” on the opposite side. This pushback was initially very effective: rapid polls showed a large national majority in favor of the President and against the Israeli request, and Congress agreed to a delay.

But the fact of the public pushback stirred up what would be a very effective reaction. J.J. Goldberg introduces his book Jewish Power, a down the middle portrait of the Jewish political establishment, with a chapter on the September 12th press conference and its aftermath. He depicts Jewish leaders as shocked at the President’s words. By the next evening the Presidents Conference, a umbrella body representing major Jewish organizations, had agreed upon and drafted a public reply to the president. The letter called Bush’s remarks “disturbing and subject to misinterpretation”—a euphemistic phrasing. Privately, some Jewish leaders were claiming that Bush had attacked Jews and threatened their political rights. It’s seldom clear in such cases to what degree the outrage was felt genuinely versus feigned as a political tactic; surely there was some of each. But a battle with organized Jewry was the last thing Bush wanted and the White House was alarmed by some phone line support which whiffed of anti-Semitism. Displays of contrition quickly followed. Within less than a week, Bush had written a “Dear Shoshana” note (to Shoshana Cardin, the President’s Conference Director) stating that he was “concerned that some of my comments … caused apprehension within the Jewish community” and claiming further that his references to lobbying and powerful political forces “were never meant to be pejorative in any sense.”

But the damage was done. AIPAC leader Tom Dine called September 12th a “day of infamy.” A major American Jewish Congress figure said “September 12 will go down in Jewish history as the day of the great betrayal. [Bush’s] statement was a disgusting display of, if not anti-Semitism, then something very close to it.” One activist said, “it set off a lightbulb. People everywhere began to mobilize.” The administration sought to make amends, but to no avail. Bush traveled to New York to meet with the Conference of Presidents. But he stuck to his guns on the loan guarantees.

As Goldberg notes, the important off-year election was the Pennsylvania Senate contest, where moderate Republican and close Bush ally Richard Thornburgh held a 44 point lead over Harris Wofford in mid-September. Within 10 days, money began pouring into Wofford’s inert campaign and the Democrat began to rise in the polls. In the final weeks Wofford was raising money at twice Thornburgh’s pace. After he lost by 10 points, Thornburgh told Bush he was the “canary in the coal mine.”

How much did this have to do with Bush’s defeat the next year? The president performed poorly in heavily Jewish precincts, but not enough to be decisive in any state. It would be too speculative to connect the settlement controversy to the transformation of Bush’s public image from the masterful diplomat who had put together an anti-Saddam coalition in 1991 to the out out of touch preppy of a year later. But clearly this face-off counted for something. George W. Bush may have signaled this without really acknowledging it when he states that he began to be worried about his father’s campaign in “early fall”—i.e. well before the Buchanan and Perot challenges had materialized.

And what does the father say? We know from Michael Desch, who formerly taught at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, that Bush 41 himself blames the Israel lobby at least partially for his defeat. Desch cites comments that Bush made to students when visiting the school in February 2005, when he decried the power of the Israel lobby. Thomas Friedman seems to agree: he recently alluded to the election when he said that after Bush’s defeat, Republicans vowed they would never get out-Israeled again.

And of course they have kept their word. George W. Bush made it clear, beginning with a 1998 helicopter tour around the West Bank with Ariel Sharon as his guide that he would shy from challenging Israel’s leaders. His first administration was stacked with prominent neoconservatives, with consequences lamentably familiar. One can see in Bush’s second term some indications that Bush eventually came to feel that he was too quick to jump into the neocon car: he reportedly began referring to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys”; privately I have heard that the younger Bush asked his dad, in the summer of 2004, to explain what a neoconservative was. Dynasties are complicated, with dynamics difficult for an outsider to plumb. Where Jeb fits in, we don’t know—though his apparent readiness to jump through Sheldon Adelson’s hoops is hardly encouraging. If Bush 43 senses the answer, he doesn’t let on in this book.

The issue of this quarrel, the settlements, is now largely moot, resolved in favor of “Greater Israel.” James Baker and George H.W. Bush genuinely believed a peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs was possible, and in both Israel’s interest and America’s. With roughly six times as many settlers on the West Bank now as then, the prospect of two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has probably vanished forever. In the near term it is not clear how Israel will be anything but an apartheid state. A President Jeb Bush would face a different set of questions about “the special relationship”. Would he respond like his father or like his brother? From his recent book we learn mostly that George W. Bush doesn’t want to talk about the issue.

Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.



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